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Latin attempts at second-guessing Sir William Lyons were always doomed.
The powerful, sensual, rounded forms that the Jaguar boss evolved over 30 years were so personal to him, and such a hit with the public, that fashionable recourse to an Italian styling house would have felt very wrong.
The likes of BMC and Triumph might have needed the Italians but not Jaguar, at least not while Lyons was at the helm.
Not even Pininfarina could successfully recapture the elegance and excitement of the Coventry originals, merely adding extra flab and chrome for the one-off customers who wanted something ‘different’.
Lyons was already in his mid-60s when this Frua-bodied S-type appeared at the 1966 Geneva Salon, with his finest creation – the groundbreaking XJ6 – still two years away.
That beautiful car would sweep aside any suggestion that the ‘compact’ Jaguar saloons, derived from the mid-’50s 2.4, were beginning to look slightly dated.
Meanwhile, there was nothing to stop private, wealthy customers such as Signor Francesco Respino ordering a one-off creation based on a Jaguar from one of the various carrozzerie that still proliferated in the Turin area.
At 53 years old, in 1966 Pietro Frua was probably at the pinnacle of a career that stretched back to the 1930s, working first as a jobbing stylist for other design houses and then, post-war, for himself.
But whereas Pininfarina, by then a true industrial enterprise, was no longer really interested in doing one-off cars for individuals, Frua still ran an operation that was small and nimble enough to build single commissions for private customers with no particular expectation that the resulting design would snare the interest of the manufacturer concerned.
Behind the scenes, Frua developed prototypes for Fiat, Volvo and even Ford (for Detroit and Dagenham), but 1966 was a quiet year for his show cars: apart from a three-door hatchback Mercedes-Benz 230SL called the SLX, and a rather unhappy remodelled Jaguar E-type commissioned by John Coombs (also shown at Geneva that year), the S-type was his only publicly revealed design.
Having done an XK150 for Ghia-Aigle in the late ’50s, these were not Frua’s first Jaguar reimaginings.
Signor Respino could simply have bought himself an S-type and had the body removed, but in December 1965 Jaguar supplied him with a rolling chassis through Turin dealer Fattori e Montani.
It was a left-hand-drive 3.8 manual, chassis number 1B78869DN. Sitting on wire wheels it was not so much a ‘chassis’ but a naked rolling floorpan, suitably strengthened.
Showing its four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension, it was deemed an unusual enough creation for a Jaguar in-house press shot to be taken, thus indicating that Lyons had signed off on the idea of the special-bodied S-type.
Frua was industrious and had the car, bodied in steel, ready for the show in three months.
In the same way that his AC428 looked surprisingly similar to the Maserati Mistral, the light-blue Jaguar was created in a house style that Frua had evolved from his Maserati Quattroporte and more recent Glas 2600 V8. He would go on to reprise it on a one-off Opel Admiral coupé shown in 1969.
It didn’t look like a Jaguar, though, and that presumably was the intention. Instead, it had the flavour of a tasteful rich man’s personal luxury car, with roughly the same dimensions as the factory S-type saloon but leaving the impression of a wider, more angular vehicle.
We can only speculate that the broad grille treatment, with secondary lights inset, was the inspiration for Lyons’ early thoughts on the Series 2 XJ.
With its long tail and full-figured rear quarters the Frua looked heavier, somehow, than the Browns Lane saloon.
It probably was, too, given the quantities of lead Frua’s panel-beaters doubtless used to achieve the various lines that flowed together to give the car its deceptively simple outline.
Only its wire wheels, leaping cat bonnet mascot and the original badging told of the S-type’s origins externally.
The tall, square glasshouse, with its slender pillars and large glazed area, was alien to the Lyons concept of organic curves yet had an elegance of its own, flowing gracefully into a long rear deck with a chopped-off tail that had a hint of the not-yet-thought-of Rolls-Royce Camargue.
The horizontally placed rear lights are annoyingly familiar, but hard to place exactly.
Like most one-offs, the Frua S-type faded quickly from the memory.
It’s not known for certain how long Respino owned the car, but at some point before the end of the 1960s it was sold to a Swiss former motorcycle racer called Hans Haldemann.
He repainted it British Racing Green and hung on to the big coupé until 1978 when it was sold into the UK, landing first in Birmingham (were it was registered on a then-current T-suffix numberplate) before moving on to Glasgow.
Still painted dark green, it was sold on again in 1985 and appeared in a Coys auction at the NEC in 1992.
Re-registered with an age-appropriate ‘C’ plate in 1995, FNN 714C was subjected to an extensive £100,000 restoration that reinstated its original opalescent light blue livery – and that, apart from various small bits of fettling over the years, has held up superbly.
It then remained in the same ownership for the following 20 years until being acquired by collectors Julien Sumner and Peter Hartnett.
The Frua Jag has an exotic feel in the metal, the only real giveaway of its origins being the dashboard, which is a straightforward lift out of the donor car but with a rather glossier coat of veneer that it may have acquired during its restoration rather than in period.
The long tail hides a more usefully shaped boot than the saloon we know and love, while at the front the bonnet hinges forward, Continental style, to reveal our dear old friend the twin-cam XK straight-six, looking much more accessible than it does in the factory S-type or Mk2 but with a handmade airbox to accommodate the lower bonnet line.
There is probably room in here for the MkX/E-type triple-SU set-up that was denied the smaller Jaguar saloons.
The heater box looks bigger than standard and there is a wide vent on the scuttle to assist airflow into a cabin that, with its big glass area, must be at severe risk of getting very stuffy in the sunshine.
With that in mind, air conditioning and electric windows seem strange omissions on a car that must have cost a small fortune to build.
At some point, probably during its Swiss ownership, the ‘leaper’ was removed from the nose of the car, its former position now covered by a slightly incongruous polished-aluminium plate bearing the ‘Jaguar’ script mounted vertically.
The doorhandles look to be from a period Rover, but the leather-trimmed door cards are obviously bespoke, with various familiar items of ’60s Italian door furniture.
My initial reaction to the big armchair front seats was that they originated from an Alfa 2600 Sprint, but now I’m not so sure: maybe Maserati?
The Italian wood-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel looks happy enough in the context of the traditional Jaguar dashboard – which, unlike that of the factory S-type, stops well short of the full extent of the wide, deep front ’screen. The latter might also have come from a Maserati.
There is easily as much room for back-seat passengers as in the English-bodied car and the light, airy atmosphere is delightful.
The previous owner of the Frua was hooked on state-of-the-art in-car entertainment, which is why the discreet-looking period pushbutton radio is actually a dummy; it can be removed to reveal a sound system loud enough to make your eardrums bleed.
Mercedes-style ‘clap hands’ wipers are an interesting Continental touch, but not so the annoying fuel flaps in the rear wings for the pannier tanks, which are the S-type originals altered to open upwards (hinged at the top, not the side), thus making petrol fill-ups rather more difficult than they need to be.
I like S-types and, sensibly optioned with the full-synchromesh manual ’box (1960s Italians thought automatic gearboxes very suspect) and power steering, this one drives as nicely as any other, with a strong and flexible engine, a smooth drivetrain and a wonderful ride; qualities that made the standard car a worthy candidate for the ‘best saloon in the world’ title in the mid-’60s.
Along with the Bertone FT S-type coupé shown at the same show, the concept of a large two-door Jaguar might well have chimed with Lyons’ slowly emerging ideas for a two-door version of the still-secret XJ.
What Lyons made of the Frua we will never know exactly, but he had a lot of time for the skill of Italian styling houses.
Also, he probably sensed the lack of a practical four-seater coupé in the company’s line-up to sit between the saloons and the E-type.
He must have been quietly pleased that private individuals, living in the natural home of luxurious and desirable coupés of the Alfa Romeo, Lancia or even Fiat persuasion, were prepared to spend a great deal of their own money on a highly personalised version of his S-type when it would be much easier (and cheaper) to go out and buy another car.
As for Sig Respino, he must have felt proud when driving his handsome coupé; fielding the questions and noting the admiring (or quizzical) glances, safe in the knowledge that he wasn’t going to see another Jaguar like this one.
Images: John Bradshaw